You might be familiar with this uncanny sensation of childlessness, as if you are getting away with something reckless and potentially illegal.
You might be familiar with this uncanny sensation of childlessness, as if you are getting away with something reckless and potentially illegal. More than once, I felt as if we had discovered a cheat code that had opened a portal into a parallel universe. Suddenly, we were allowed to get a drink. We were allowed to sip this drink. We could read more than a single page in a book at one time. We could enjoy a meal without cleaning yogurt off the ceiling.
Yet this odd feeling of defeating space and time came as much from our destination as anything. Cuba, that elusive island unfurling across the Caribbean like a tangled flag, sits barely 100 miles south of Key West. And yet it may as well be 10,000 miles. The country’s complex identity is bound in its ability to feel both so close and yet so far away at the same time.
Our visit came at a strange time for Cuban-American relations, as the country languishes in a period of post-Fidel Castro, post-Obama uncertainty. Many Cubans we talked to cited President Barack Obama’s 2015 visit as a critical first step in normalizing relations. But such optimism has given way to a waiting game. Is the sudden explosion of private businesses (like Airbnb) on the island a sign of things to come or merely window dressing on what remains a totalitarian regime? What will happen when Raul Castro finally steps down? In this age of President Donald Trump, are Americans even allowed to go to Cuba anymore? And if I did go to Cuba, would my capitalist mind be turned into mush?
Like many, I had been particularly taken by reports that American diplomats in Cuba had experienced mysterious symptoms, including nausea, hearing loss, dizziness, memory loss and even brain damage. Both the media and the U.S. State Department bandied about an attack by a “sonic weapon” as a possible explanation. It felt like a last, toxic gasp of Cold War subterfuge.
What would this even look like? I pictured a Russian agent in a dingy hotel room, a gadget-filled suitcase open on the bed, various satellite dishes pointed at his target in an adjacent building. Scientists and acoustic experts have dismissed such theories of ultrasonic sound rifles as extremely unlikely. A more plausible hypothesis is that the diplomats were exposed to some kind of toxin. Still, sound as an all-pervasive, invisible weapon remains a primal fear of mine. I even wrote a novel in which a New Jersey teenager discovers a particular frequency that, when played at exactly the right decibel level, has disastrous physical effects on his classmates.
So then why go to Cuba and dive into the cross hairs of both diplomatic and acoustic uncertainty? Because this is why we travel. As José Martí, Cuba’s talismanic national poet and philosopher once wrote, “In a time of crisis, the peoples of the world must rush to get to know each other.” No one can predict what will happen to Cuba, which is why you must rush there right now. To visit is to witness a rare bird about to fly the coop.
We flew direct to Havana from Newark Liberty International Airport on United Airlines. I was as shocked as you that this is now possible. The cheat-code feeling began in earnest at the airport in Newark, New Jersey, where they made you check in at a whole special area dedicated solely to the handful of us flying to Cuba. This seemed like a complete waste of money and infrastructure, but these are the strange byproducts of what feels like a decadeslong playground argument between our two countries.
I was a bit nervous about my qualifications. Officially, you are not allowed to visit Cuba as a tourist. Rather, you must travel under the auspices of 12 official reasons. I had my very official reason (I was engaged in “journalistic activity”) and my very official itinerary (I would go to this restaurant … to engage in “journalistic activity”).
In the end, no one batted an eye. We paid $75 for each of our Cuban visas. Amazingly, the cost of our Cuban medical insurance was baked into the cost of the plane ticket. For the brief time I was there, I would have much more robust (and much cheaper) insurance than I have in the United States.
The flight to Havana took just over three hours. There’s a bit of consumerist whiplash that goes on when one travels from New Jersey to Cuba. The landscape around Newark Liberty is a surreal holding ground for all the trappings of capitalist excess: shipping containers packed with plastic Chinese toys, warehouses storing kombucha, parking lots filled with new cars.
There is no such excess in Cuba, where things are used and then used some more until they eventually fall apart. And then they are fixed. Our driver in Havana had inherited his cherry-red 1959 Buick Invicta convertible from his father, who had inherited it from his father. The engine was original. I asked how many miles the car had on it. “This can’t be measured,” he said.
Much in Cuba resists measurement. Time becomes slippery. When we drove into the city from José Martí International Airport, we were instantly immersed in a whirlwind of ghostly history: American Plymouths from the 1950s, Soviet Ladas from the 1970s, Polski Fiats from the 1980s, donkey carts, the odd Peugeot. It was as if every moment that came before was also present now.
Cubans have a complicated relationship to time. The socialist system demands that time is not one’s own; time, like most everything else, is a shared commodity. Thus people are used to waiting in lines for services. They are so used to waiting in lines that there are no lines anymore. There is only a group of people living their lives as they happen to be waiting outside a bank or at a bus stop. When someone new shows up they ask “Quién es el último?” A finger goes up. The queue quietly grows and time tumbles on.
One young Cuban we talked to waiting in line shrugged off this inconvenience.
“Yes, there are shortages of goods,” he said. “No, it’s not ideal. Private enterprise is important. But we don’t just want to copy the American system — no offense — where everything is about money.”
A great gift of our short time in Havana was time itself. Specifically not having constant access to the internet. Back home my phone is my safety blanket, my cigarette, my friend, my enemy. Havana has recently allowed for public Wi-Fi, but only in certain parks and street corners. One has to purchase a little card to buy time online. And so we guiltily joined the masses at night in John Lennon Park (not to be confused with Lenin Park outside the city), huddled around the glow of our smartphones. The public parks are once again filled with addicts; it’s just the nature of the fix that has changed. Would this be where the new revolution began? And would this revolution have its own emoji?
We were wandering through dark parks at night because, for the most part, Cuba itself is perfectly safe. There is no crime to speak of, or so the Cuban government says. As is often the case, when you dig beneath the surface, all is not as it seems: Cuba has the seventh-highest incarceration rate in the world (the United States is No. 2). If there is no crime, why are there so many criminals? Or is there no crime because all the (potential) criminals are locked up? The driver shrugged when I asked about this.
“There’s an old joke,” he said. “Eleven million Cubans, 5 million are police.”
I will not be the first to tell you that the streets of Havana are an intoxication. The city is ridiculously photogenic, no filters needed. Our Airbnb was in Vedado, a deceptively calm residential neighborhood of aging mansions which also features a few of the city’s most thumping night clubs and Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an old cooking oil factory turned into a sprawling multiuse arts complex with a terrific restaurant, El Cocinero, on its rooftop. The night we went, there was a fashion show, a concert, a gallery opening all wrapped up into one. Cubans are ingenious at adapting what they have into something that is greater than the sum of its parts.
From Vedado we walked. We walked without our children, which meant we could actually get somewhere. We walked along the Malecón, the seafront avenue and promenade known as the “sofa of the city,” where young people come out to see and be seen as the ocean pounds the city’s sea wall. We strolled through the crumbling party of Centro Habana, the “real Havana,” as many people put it. Everyone was home for the holidays; the mood was festive. We dodged water flung from balconies. Men fixing cars. Cars fixing men. We drifted through the Callejón de Hamel, an alleyway covered in palimpsestic layers of Afro-Cuban street art by Salvador González — inscribed bathtubs embedded in walls, bright murals of bodies entangled in dance. We passed the joyous scrum of a rumba street festival.
Was there a rumba festival here every day? I wouldn’t be surprised.
In fact, Habaneros are some of the more upbeat people I have ever met. Citizens in many of the socialist and post-socialist countries I’ve visited often radiate a carefully honed cynicism (see the perfect scowl of an escalator attendant in the Moscow Metro). Cubans are just the opposite. They are not blind to the problems in their country, but there is no time to be down because … there’s a rumba street festival! (And a car to fix, an apartment to rent, eggs to track down. …)
Even Jesus was in on the action. The Christ of Havana is a 66-foot-tall statue made of Carrara marble that overlooks the city from a hilltop across the bay.
“In Rio their Jesus is like this,” our guide said, holding out his arms. “In Cuba he is like this, with a mojito and a cigar.” The Cuban benediction.
We were constantly called out by strangers: “Where are you from?” People beamed when we told them. “We love the U.S. I have a cousin in Queens. It’s cold there, yes? I would die. Please tell everyone that Cuba is beautiful. No Mafia, no war. Just mojitos and salsa dancing.” Hand on stomach, the dance was demonstrated, the toe expertly twirled in the dust.
This was all part of the pitch. For the average Cuban, it is of course not just mojitos and salsa dancing. Every day is an act of improvised survivalism.
But as visitors on this miraculous island, we followed the Christ of Havana’s lead and drank our fair share of mojitos. They went down like water.
The food was almost universally forgettable, but this is not why you come to Cuba. You come to be transported. To dance, to twirl your toes in the dust. To soak in the jaw-dropping collage of colonial and art deco architecture, to ponder the sad-alien street murals by Yulier Rodriguez,to hear stories of a parallel world, a world that begins to slowly merge with your own.
And you come for the sound. Havana is a land of sound. Never have I been to a place whose identity is so entangled in its auditory fingerprint. The guttural putt putt of 8-cylinder Cadillacs built before my father was born; the ocean rising and slapping at the Malecón like a newborn babe; the dip and pull of the timbale’s bell chattering at a bar across the street, tin tin — tin tin tin; the shuffle of a man demonstrating salsa for you on the sidewalk; the swish and chop of a broom on a doorstep; the plush boom of the ceremonial cannons fired every evening from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña; the clink of ice cubes in the most delicious mojito de piña you will ever taste.
I could not help but think: Could this blessed collage of reverberations really be the site of those sonic attacks? Before I left for Cuba I had listened to a brief audio recording of what some of the diplomats had allegedly heard. It was unlistenable, like a cloud of cicadas on acid. A thromping high-pitched acoustic minefield. It cleaved open my consciousness, crushed my spirit, shut down all possibility. Sound can be terrifying.
It can also be beautiful. Our last night in Havana we went to see the eternal Roberto Fonseca and his band Temperamento at the famous La Zorra y El Cuervo jazz club. To enter, you must wait in line before descending through a replica of a red British telephone booth into a small subterranean space.
Fonseca and his bandmates arrived one by one, greeting one another, testing their instruments, testing the wind, the mood. There was no rush. The music didn’t start until well after 11 p.m. Yet when that first note was struck, everything seemed to fade away: the city, the island, the ocean, the world. We were floating. The drummer was humble, incorruptible, generous. He dove back and forth with Fonseca, who dashed up and down his keyboard like a gazelle. The conga player, when his time finally came, let loose such an avalanche of rhythm the atoms in the room began to quiver and split. Tell me, is there a more ecstatic instrument than the conga drum?
Jazz, when it is good, makes all possibilities seem possible. And yet whatever is played at the moment also feels perfect, intensely true. This is what was meant to be. When the song finally ended, the world came rushing back, changed, unchanged.
We were in Cuba, still.
We took a breath and began to applaud.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.